It's been a while since the last blog update. But that means we've been working flat out without really time to do much else, doesn't it? Actually, you'd be surprised at just how long software development can take
It's not really well known as a spectator sport, so there was little point in posting loads of little "in development" posts - not at least until there was something substantial to show. We moved over to Unity for our app/game development.
So here's a sneak preview of our Starship Raiders game/app. It's getting pretty close to done. Of course, the interface needs finishing, but it can be played either as a standalone game, or hooked up to your tabletop hardware - via bluetooth - and controlled using the connectedgames hardware.
Here we see our heroes sneaking up behind the alien scum and giving them what for! The nice thing about the system is how it hides your enemy pieces until they are in your line-of-sight, then prompts you to place them on the board. So each player only ever sees what their characters can see. As for the alien player, in this instance, they won't know what's hit them!
Originally our game sections connected using wires and plugs and pins; while being a robust connetion method and relatively easy to produce, for the end user messing about with wire was always a little bit fiddly. So we invested quite a bit of time trying out all kinds of alternatives. The best, by far, was to use small magnets to join the room sections together
Just because the blog updates are a little slow coming through these days doesn't mean there's nothing going on here at Connected Games! In fact, it's just the opposite. As well as software development, the final touches to the electronics and hardware being put in place, working out a manufacturing method to save you lot a load of work..... it's busy, busy, busy here. And all to make things better. For you ;-)
One thing that has bugged us a little in recent weeks is the rather clumsy method of connecting the board game pieces together for our flagship game Starship Raiders. Sure, using "pin headers" and bits of wire is fine for a prototype. Maybe even for a make-it-yourself, open source kit. But as part of a "professionally produced" assembled product, the idea of lifting parts up and running bits of wire between sections always jarred a little bit.
We always liked the idea of magnetic connectors - not only are they easy for the end user to work with, but they also pull the pieces together on the tabletop and make things much more robust. But there were two problems to overcome. The first is cost - a single pair of magnetic connectors cost about £1. (50p if bought in bulk). With three on every door that means a crossroads junction (with four exists) would cost £12 in connectors alone! Add in the manufacturing multiplier and suddenly the RRP on these things was going skyward!
The other is that with three "pins" to connect, getting the polarities right every time could be tricky. If the pin on the left was always a north-facing magnet and the pin on the right south-facing, to door pieces
would always attract each other (rather than repel, if two similar-poled magnets were face-to-face). The tricky part came with the centre pin - because it would always be the same polarity, it would always repel any other centre pin that came near it!
Nick came up with the idea of using coated steel plates and using the magnets just as "couplers" between two parts. Genius!
The first prototype went really well. The second - we had intermittent problems; sometimes the data connection got lost and it stopped responding. Sometimes it would reset on its own. We discovered that unless all three plates were absolutely, perfectly in line, we could only guarantee that two of the three pins were in contact at any one time!
What we needed were spring-loaded connectors that could allow for a little "wiggle-room" on each connector. So even if they aren't mounted perfectly inline, we could be sure of a good, solid connection every time.
The downside? Spring-loaded connectors are expensive.
Now price doesn't drive every decision on this project. But when moving from one-off prototype to manufacturing in volume, it is kind-of important. So Nick came up with another brilliant idea. Instead of fixed steel plates for the magnets to connect to, what if they could move backwards and forwards? What if we created something that would hold them in place, but allow a little bit of movement? We tried this idea out (using tin-plated paper fasteners to give us the steel connector the magnet would be attracted to, but also corrosion resistance and a nice easy surface to solder onto!)
The end result? A set of three connectors that magnets can stick to, that are not dependent on the polarity of the magnets joining them and that have enough room to move to take up any variance in distance during manufacturing.
In short, the perfect set of connectors. So now players can simply drop a small disc magnet into each of the three holes, push a connecting piece up to it and let it all just automagically click into place!
Far better than messing about with bits of wire, surely?
Now you don't just have to play the game - you can be in it! Our games are the result of our amazing community of players, so what better way to show our appreciation, than to make you the star of our next title?Enter now
As software and hardware development comes closer to completion, we're having to turn our minds from one-off prototype production to larger volume manufacturing. The truth is, some of our production techniques are a little.... time consuming to say the least. Now, there are plenty of people out there who (like us) would love nothing more than receiving a kit of tiny, fiddly parts, assembling them, painting everything up and creating a super-detailed, highly realistic miniature environment
But there are also plenty of people who would look at such a task as a monumental time-grab and think "maybe I have better things to do with my time" - so we've been looking at ways of producing detailed terrain quickly and easily (so you can get it onto the tabletop quicker)
The most obvious answer was "vac forming". So we set about making a vac-former (it really is little more than a box with a hole for a shop-vac attachment and a top full of holes) and creating a master from which to "pull" our shapes.
The additional holes in the master are small enough that the plastic will not be pulled into them, but provide a means of getting the extra suction necessary to pull the soft plastic sheet tightly against the mould (it's actually a polystyrene sheet to be pedantic).
Vac forming is great fun - you can easily do it at home with a box, an oven and vacuum cleaner.
Simply staple your styrene sheet to a wooden frame and whack it in the oven for a few minutes. When the plastic is soft and starts to sag heavily, throw it over your mould, switch on the vacuum and watch your plastic take on the formed shape! It is super-cheap to do and easy enough to carry out on the kitchen table!
Sadly, despite being easy and cheap, vac-forming left us with just one problem - it isnt really good enough to draw out the small details we had moulded onto our master!
On the underside, where the plastic was pulled tight against the mould, the level of detail is brilliant - but on the "show side" the details were just a little too fiddly for the plastic to pull against them to capture all the intricate details.
Wow, it's been three weeks since the UK Games Expo! Where does the time go to? Well, if you're busy coding up all-new line-of-sight algorithms and spending three-and-four hours at a time hunting down the most elusive of intermittent bugs, it flies by pretty quickly!
But for the last few weeks we've been making some important changes to the app-side of our games; making them more "modular" (so the core functionality of the code can be re-used in other, future games) more reliable (so even if things go wrong, we don't go locking up your computer) more "hackable" (so you can easily edit your own sounds and artwork) and all round just more utterly awesome.
Sadly, coding has never been much of a spectator sport. It's also a pretty rubbish topic to write about - hours and hours of headscratching, followed by a brief "eureka!" moment, followed by more hours of "oh, hang on, that's not right...."
So there are no cool new photos to show, no new videos, but over the last few weeks we've been making massive progress on our interactive connected terrain for Starship Raiders. Watch this space......